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Chafee Wins Rhode Island Race

The moderate senator's primary victory is key for the GOP. The party thought his challenger was too conservative to prevail in November.

September 13, 2006|Elizabeth Mehren and Janet Hook | Times Staff Writers

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — In a key victory for the national Republican Party, incumbent Sen. Lincoln Chafee on Tuesday fended off a fierce primary challenge from Cranston Mayor Steve Laffey.

With 99% of the state's precincts reporting, Chafee, a maverick Republican who had often been at odds with party leaders, won 54% of the GOP primary votes. Laffey got 46%.

The measure of victory was unexpected. Days before the primary, polls showed the two candidates running even.

Just before 11 p.m. -- two hours after the polls had closed -- the senator gave his victory speech in a ballroom overlooking downtown Providence.

"This is my 10th run for office," Chafee said, taking supporters back to his earlier races for City Council and mayor of nearby Warwick. "And I've never had one like this."

Chafee won election to the Senate in 2000, a year after he was appointed to the seat upon the death of his father. John Chafee was a much-admired progressive Republican who represented Rhode Island as governor and U.S. senator.

Chafee's primary win was crucial to the GOP's battle to maintain Senate control. Had Laffey won, party leaders were prepared to concede the seat to Democrats. Establishment Republicans had concluded -- and made plain to GOP voters during the primary election -- that Laffey was too conservative to win a general election in the deep-blue state of Rhode Island.

Surrounded by his wife and five children at a hotel near the Providence airport, Laffey told supporters: "I've been running as a reformer, a real reformer. But the voters have spoken."

Chafee, 53, is a moderate who did not vote for President Bush in 2004, instead writing in the name of the president's father. He was the only Republican senator to vote against the war in Iraq, and also has opposed Bush administration tax cuts.

Chafee voted against the nomination of Samuel A. Alito Jr. as Supreme Court justice, and has clashed with the administration on issues such as abortion and the environment.

On Tuesday, Chafee apparently was aided by independents, who make up Rhode Island's largest voter segment. Only about 68,000 Rhode Islanders are registered Republicans -- about 10% of the state's electorate. Former state Atty. Gen. Sheldon Whitehouse handily won the Democratic Senate nomination.

"It is good news for Republicans in a period where there is very little good news to be found," said Marshall Wittmann, a former Republican strategist who now is an analyst with the centrist Democratic Leadership Council.

More broadly, Chafee's victory may signal that there is still a place for centrists in an era of intensely polarized politics. While both parties have been drawn increasingly to political extremes dictated by their base supporters, there is an undercurrent this year of voter weariness with partisan combat. Chafee may have benefited from that sentiment through heavy turnout by independent voters.

"It shows that moderates can live within the party," said Sarah Chamberlain Resnick, executive director of the Republican Main Street Partnership, a political group for GOP centrists.

And in a year when anti-incumbent sentiment has taken a toll in several congressional and state primary elections, Chafee's victory gave hope to the power of incumbency. The GOP establishment made the Rhode Island race a high priority, pouring in consultants and more important, funds, to help Chafee turn back his upstart challenger.

The GOP invested heavily in backing Chafee because "this is not a difficult calculus here," said Chuck Newton, spokesman for the Rhode Island Republican Party. "We wanted to hold on to that seat, and no poll showed that Laffey could beat Whitehouse."

The Republican hierarchy was forced to embrace a candidate who habitually goes his own way, said Wendy Schiller, associate professor of political science at Brown University.

"Do the math," she said. "They were willing to swallow it because it gives them procedural control of the government. They may be mad at Chafee, and they may not like him, but they're also practical."

In turn, Laffey was backed by the Conservative Club for Growth, a national organization that has pressured the GOP to hew to a conservative anti-tax orthodoxy by funding primary challenges to moderate Republicans.

The Rhode Island primary -- one of nine states, plus the District of Columbia, that voted Tuesday -- represented the state's toughest renomination battle since the adoption of this primary system in 1948.

The closely watched race was also one of the most costly in state history. Along with Democrat Whitehouse, the two Republican rivals spent about $6.6 million in pursuit of the Senate seat. Only the $7-million Rhode Island governor's election in 2002 eclipsed that figure.

The three candidates spent $2.8 million on televised air attacks alone. Most of the funding for these commercials came from out of state, including more than $1 million to the Laffey camp from the Club for Growth.

Former GOP Rep. Pat Toomey, head of the Club for Growth, said he was disappointed in Chafee's apparent victory.

"The fact that Lincoln Chafee has been so out of step with Republicans in Rhode Island," he said, "is the reason he had a very, very, very tough race."


Mehren reported from Rhode Island, and Hook from Washington.

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